VOLCANIC ash buried the little village at Ceren in the Zapotitan
Valley of El Salvador more than 1,400 years ago, preserving it so
perfectly that the very food on the grinding stones is still
identifiable. Dubbed the Pompeii of the New World, Ceren's degree of
preservation is in fact superior to that of the ancient Italian
Until recently, how the prehistoric working class, artisans, and
farmers lived in Mezoamerica was little studied and understood. But
thanks to the artful investigations of archaeologist Payson Sheets
of the University of Colorado and his team of scientists, the past
is yielding up its mysteries.
The village site was discovered by accident in 1976 by a
bulldozer operator under contract to flatten a hill slope. The
workman contacted El Salvador's national museum (Museo Nacional
David J. Guzman) when he first unearthed the wall of a building,
according to Dr. Sheets.
A museum investigator initially thought the structure must be
modern since it was so well preserved. So the bulldozing continued
and two or three structures were lost before Sheets happened on the
site during an archaeological survey two years later.
"I could see a floor and a thatch roof on the floor," he says.
Ensconced in his large basement office at the university's Boulder,
Colo., campus, Professor Sheets is soft-spoken, patient.
"I kept looking for a Coke bottle, or a piece of plastic," he
says, "anything that would indicate that it was modern. What I found
were shards of pottery I could date back to the classic period (in
Mezoamerica, before 1520). But farmers still turn up shards of
ancient pottery. So I realized there were two distinct
possibilities. Either it was a prehistoric site and it would be of
tremendous importance to have households in that degree of
preservation. Or, if I announced it was prehistoric and it turned o
ut to be modern I could generate a lot of professional embarrassment
Radiocarbon dating, however, placed the date of materials
examined at 1,400 years old (the historic period begins with the
Spanish invasion around 1520).
Sheets's investigations were abruptly cut off by political
upheaval in Salvador in 1980, and it was not until 1989 that work
could begin again. The 1990-91 field season, however, has proved the
most fruitful. Sheets and colleagues are now piecing together a
picture of what daily life was like for the ancient inhabitants when
it was abruptly ended by nature.
Based on Sheets's findings, before its cataclysmic eruption, the
Laguna Caldera volcano did not exist. Where it now stands, a level
valley was bisected by a flowing river. But sometime in the early
rainy season, probably June around AD 600, hot magma worked its way
up from the depths of the earth, met the river waters, and steam
exploded across the countryside. Then magma blasted into the air.
Without significant warning - there were no eruptions of gas,
and judging from the absence of fissures in the walls, no
earthquakes - the helpless inhabitants of Ceren had no time to pack
up their possessions and flee. Sheets says their most valuable
possessions were left in place.
The volcanic ash was so hot and so moist it packed rapidly around
every object, organic and inorganic. Pots, obsidian knives, grinding
stones, and many other artifacts survived in pristine condition.
Organic materials that decomposed left cavities in the ash that
hardened into perfect casts. Sheets has filled them with dental
plaster and extracted detailed forms of plants, corn, beans,
baskets, and and other items of daily life.
So far, four households (14 buildings) along with what appears to
be a shrine and another large, fancier building (perhaps a sauna)
have been found under 20 feet of ash. Sheets has located at least
three other structures still to be investigated. Only one human has
been found so far, someone who apparently tried to escape by running
to the river. …